Words are attributed meanings that are a result of long-standing usage, the culture they are surrounded by, and also the sphere of time they exist in. Occasionally, there will be words that carry a heavy weight of history and oppression –– and they exist till this day, in full-fledged use, with the users probably not realising the past it comes from, and all its implications.
The phrase ‘Tam-Brahm’ (Tamil-Brahmin) is used indiscriminately –– to highlight one’s societal classification, express their belongingness in the community or even describe their heritage. However, for any of these cases, the point can be made without the usage of the phrase, too –– for the word carries a weight that stems from oppression of the other classes.
In a country where caste largely dictates ‘class’ or even the treatment of a person, the expression of being a Brahmin of any kind comes from a place of privilege. It denotes a circumstance that is beneficial to oneself. Casteist terms or words by nature contextualise India’s caste system problem -––that it exists intrinsically in all walks of life here. It is difficult to escape, and language has a huge role to play.
Back in school, too, kids unknowingly use the term ‘Tam-Brahm’ to describe their upbringing, what they got for lunch or how a festival is celebrated at home. Of course, caste has never been a topic that is discussed in school or even at home with young children, so it is impossible for them to understand the weight of it. ‘Tam-Brahm’ would make it clear that their way of life is different to others’, and different in a way that earned them some ease of life.
Professor C.J Fuller and Assistant Professor Haripriya Narasimhan, who carried out an ethnographic study on Tamil Brahmins, in conversation with The Hindu said, “Tamil Brahmans are extremely unusual in how fully they have been transformed into an urban middle-class caste, so that they now constitute a social class-cum-status group, internally divided into upper and lower strata.” The article explains that essentially, for Tamil-Brahmins, caste and class have come to be one and the same thing. Hence, their higher caste position reflects in that of class.
The phrase itself is not a casteist slur, and is not considered a slur at all since it recognises the highest caste there is –– how, then, can a word be associated with being looked down upon? But the problem exists in just that –– that in being the opposite to a slur, we assume it to be something that brings in dignity and a position at the pedestal. We must ask ourselves, is the use of the term required to describe a person or is it simply a vehicle to shed light on their entitlement?
Should we speak of the caste system? We must, but in a manner that criticises it to the point of questioning its very birth. The question is, should we speak about caste in day-to-day conversations wherein it gives off the notion that a certain class is being attached to the terms used? Probably not. Essentially, the need to use the term ‘Tam-Brahm’ in daily conversation should not exist. After all, it signifies and deepens the gap. It is as if each use of ‘Tam-Brahm’ pricks at the misfortune of others from various non-Brahmin castes.
The language we use creates a large impact on the kind of world we live in –– the usage of certain words, and the misuse of others can cause grave divide.
Words are meant to be used mindfully –– a kind world is harder to achieve now more than ever. With a little more attention and some additional care, surely, we will get there.
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